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CO2-to-chemicals effort boosted by electrocatalytic process

By Scott Jenkins |

The quest to generate chemicals and fuels from exhaust or atmospheric carbon dioxide got a boost from a series of recent studies by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL; Berkeley, Calif.; www.lbl.gov), in which the scientists proved the viability of an electrocatalytic process for making ethanol, propanol and ethylene from CO2 using renewably generated electricity. In addition, the LBL team has shown a pathway toward highly selective copper electrocatalysts that could be engineered to produce a single product, thereby eliminating the need for downstream separation.

In one project, the LBL scientists, led by Joel Ager, a researcher at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, were able to exceed the efficiency of natural photosynthesis in converting CO2 into two-carbon compounds and oxygenates using an “all-purpose” silver-copper catalyst and electrons from solar photovoltaic cells.

In another project, the team showed that engineered copper catalysts could potentially be highly selective for specific chemicals. “We used cycles of oxidation and reduction to create copper active sites, similar to the methods used to engineer heterogeneous catalysts for industrial applications,” says Ager. The oxidation and reduction process created nanostructured morphology in the catalyst material that promotes CO2 reduction chemistry.

Ager and colleagues then used carbon monoxide labeled with carbon-13 radioisotopes to discern three distinct types of active sites in the copper catalyst material. Each type of active site results in different end products (ethanol, propanol or ethylene). “CO is a reaction intermediate that combines with other CO molecules to form C–C bonds,” Ager explains, “and those C–C bonds reflect the relative abundance of carbon-13 and carbon-12 at the site that formed them.” The study confirmed that the three product groups came from different active sites, opening the possibility that catalysts could be engineered to exhibit only a single type of active site. This would theoretically produce a single product selectively and eliminate the need to separate a mixed product stream by distillation or other means, Ager says.

The LBL team is looking at how the orientation and spacing of the atoms in the different types of active sites gives rise to specific products.

electrocatalytic process

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